On Transverse Abdominis and Miyamoto, Or, On “Not Doing Anything Useless”

It turns out that when you’re over forty, you should not practice karate one week after delivering your third child – at least not full out. Who knew?

With my first two pregnancies, I trained right up until delivery, and went back to the dojo a few days postpartum. I assumed I could do the same with the third child; I hadn’t factored in that, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, I’m no longer a “spring chicken”.

Since having my third child almost four years ago, I’ve had several injuries, all related to an injury from having returned to training too soon after delivery, before my body was ready. The original culprit was a bulging disk, and the remedy, according to my physio therapist, was strengthening my transverse abdominis, or “core”, in laypersons’ terms.

For the past few years, I’ve relapsed several times. Every time I’m pain free, I embrace exercise with gusto. I lose myself in training (in the throes of meditative aspects of kata) – and pull a muscle. The other day, when I told my students I would only be kicking with one leg due to a pulled hip muscle, a child asked: “Is Ms. Baudot injured again?”

Yes, Ms. Baudot was injured again.

It’s maddening.

Last year, I was running a household, working on two books, and managing a major family celebration. I started feeling unwell. I struggled to get out of bed. Since I consider myself a morning person, I saw my struggle to rise as a warning to pay attention – a canary in a coal mine. I booked a consultation with my doctor. Tests showed that I was in excellent health.

I was simply burnt out.

I hate to slow down. I love to move. I adore the physical aspects of karate. The clean line of each movement, the Ki. I value losing myself in the flow of training, which keeps me physically and mentally fit.

Nevertheless, I’ve slowed down my training. I’ve decided to see my injury as an opportunity to fix what I’ve been doing wrong all along. Turns out that I never properly engaged my core strength in my training. This means that my strikes, while speedy, don’t have the force necessary to disarm an opponent.

So I’m working on increasing my strength. I’m diligent about doing my physio – when I’d rather be doing anything else. Listening to audio books helps. (Lately I’ve been reading cardiologist Kathy Magliato’s memoir, Heart Matters, which effectively distracts me from the mind-numbing effort of doing yet another transverse abdominis contraction.)

I’ve also slowed down my kata practice, focusing on engaging my core with every move. It’s a laborious, frustrating process. But I’m working on it.

A co-instructor who struggles with a disc injury gave me some advice. He reminded me that karate is about training the mind as much as the body. He suggested that I use my enforced stillness as an opportunity to focus on karate’s mental aspects.

My first sensei lectured us on the ideas of Musashi Miyamoto, 17th century swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings. “Don’t do anything useless,” my sensei used to say. I took this instruction to mean that I should bring an equal amount of effort to all tasks. When writing and raising children, I try to marshal a razor-like focus. In life, as in the art of karate, I’m heeding my first sensei’s advice, all the while repeating to myself Miyamoto’s teaching: “Don’t do anything useless.”

Mama, Again

My lifestyle gradually changed, and I no longer considered running the point of life. In other words, a mental gap began to develop beween me and running. Just like when you lose the initial crazy feeling you have when you fall in love. (Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.)

The above quote somewhat captures what I’ve been feeling, but not quite. I have been experiencing the mental gap Murakami speaks of, and this chasm lies between me and karate. On the other hand, outside circumstances have deepened that breach.

Still, in keeping with Voltaire’s caution that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” I’ve decided to leave Murakami’s quote at the top of today’s entry.

What has happened is that I’ve become pregnant with my third child. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered the third time around:

  1. The first few weeks of a middle-aged pregnancy can be physically horrendous. In the beginning, I start to experience debilitating headaches that force me to go to bed at six p.m. every evening. I experience an unfamiliar nausea. One morning, my nine-year-old comes down to the kitchen in time to hear me retching in the kitchen sink. “What’s wrong?” she asks. Since I don’t want to tell my kids about the baby until the risk of miscarriage has abated, I lie to her. “A bad cough,” I say.
  2. By the sixth month of pregnancy I can no longer do karate spinning back kicks. The execution isn’t bad but once the foot is out there, it refuses to return smoothly. I lose my balance. Besides, I look ridiculous, tilting forward with my enormous belly—which is already a kind of shelf I can rest my tea cup on—then returning like a weeble wobble.
  3. After a karate class, everything hurts. My pelvis feels like someone has beaten it with a stick. My feet ache. My legs go into spasms for the next twelve hours. After a class, I come home, collapse on the couch, and can’t get up for at least an hour. The house starts to fall apart. I neglect my evening tidy-up. In addition, since we’ve emptied the kids’ rooms in order to paint them (what was I thinking?), we spend our time climbing over boxes of books and stepping on Lego toys.
  4. On the other hand, after a class, my mood is excellent. All things considered, I decide to continue my training.

The decision to train until the end of my pregnancy (which I did with my first two pregnancies) is scuttled by month six, during which I start to experience contractions. “It’s too early,” my physician husband says. “You really don’t want to give birth anytime before thirty-two weeks. Twenty-four weeks is bad.”

“How long do I have to wait?”

“Thirty-six weeks is best.”

When I go to my regular medical check-up, my O.B., an always-smiling woman in her mid-forties, asks me to consider “taking it easy.”

I tell her that in order to compromise that morning, I chose to walk rather than bike the three kilometres to her office. She looks at my feet. “At least you have good shoes.” She adds, “none of my patients are doing what you’re doing.”

I tell her that I intend to teach my last karate class the following week. The decision to stop teaching is based somewhat more on an emotional need rather than on practical considerations. I’m starting to feel embarrassed about my failing technique. I mourn the loss of my high side kicks. I have always been proud of my ability to keep my balance, a skill that in the last few weeks I’ve misplaced entirely.

But there are also practical considerations. Because the already-large foetus is constricting my lungs, I can no longer demonstrate a particular move and speak at the same time. I lose my breathe and become dizzy.

I’ve enlisted other advanced belts to help me, and they do. We take turns demonstrating and teaching. In the end, however, I have to concede that teaching is no longer possible. I find a talented and dedicated purple belt to take my place for the next year.

But quitting teaching turns out not to be enough. By the seventh month, I’ve gained 27 pounds, and it’s getting hard to haul myself around the city streets, let alone do karate drills. I’m also much older than I was during the first two pregnancies, and I feel the aches and pains of this pregnancy much more acutely. I experience insomnia, congestion, and a myriad of digestive issues.

On the advice of my O.B., I leave karate and switch to less dynamic sports: walking, swimming, and yoga. These challenge me but don’t knock me out the way karate does. The exception is when I take long hikes with my family. During a visit to relatives in Europe, my family and I hike twelve kilometres through Basque mountains in northern Spain. In the summer heat. In the afternoon. It takes me several hours to recover from the hike, and I concede to myself that I’ve overdone it and promise myself to walk for shorter distances.

I mourn the loss of karate. I miss karate’s dynamism. I miss feeling competent at a sport. I also miss my community of students and teachers.

A fellow instructor points out that this enforced break will encourage me to develop the mental aspect of karate training. He’s right, and I do find myself being able to draw on previously undiscovered mental resources. On the other hand, my general mental state is suffering. I’ve gone from a lifestyle involving rigorous exercise to a relatively quiet lifestyle. I’ve started to lose my patience. I dial up my participation in other sports in the hope that being more active will help me keep my temper. After all, I tell myself, it’s not fair to lose my patience with my existing children for the sake of the unborn child.

I cling to the fact that all this is temporary. The baby will be born, and after a few months, I’ll be able to train again. But I’m frightened: I’m getting older. What if I can no longer regain the type of physical fitness I had in my thirties? I re-read Haruki Murakami ’s memoir, What I talk About When I Talk About Running. His enumeration of his aches and pains, his expression of a sense of time’s passing and of his grief at becoming older—these comfort me.

During my seventh month of pregnancy, my husband and I take our children on a seven-kilometre hike in Northern Ontario. I huff and puff my way up a muddy trail. It’s so challenging that I become grumpy. “I’m not sure this is what Dr. M. had in mind,” I tell my husband. “When she told me to take it easy.” But it is a beautiful hike, through evergreens and birches. There are mushrooms I’ve never seen before: fiery red button ones; large, yellow flat ones in the shape of stingrays; bulbous brown ones that I tell my children are Smurf houses.

I won’t lie: I’m terrified of the first few months after birth. Those months during which you have so little time for yourself, and what little time you do have you experience as though you’re in a fog. How will I train? How will I write?

I am now in my eighth month. This week, I handed in my completed manuscript of short stories to a potential publisher. There’s nothing left for me to do but wait. A few weeks ago, I wrote a draft of a graphic novel. Since I have to wait for my illustrator to complete another project before she illustrates my text, I’ve started writing a novel that has been tugging at me for years.

Now, I’m thinking that blogging, writing a novel, and raising three kids while running a household might be overly ambitious. But who knows? Perhaps those mental resources my fellow karate instructor spoke of will continue to kick in, after all.

Imagining Kata

Theoretically, there is always time for karate. In reality, this isn’t always the case. For the last few weeks, I’ve been sick (I’ve caught every virus the kids bring home from school, and other things on top of this). I decided to take a few days off karate to allow my body to rest.

Some time ago, I asked a wise friend and karate colleague who has a very demanding day job how he keeps up his karate practice. He told me that he doesn’t always have time to physically practice karate, but that he always has time to imagine karate. He suggested that I do the same.

The way to go about this is this: you close your eyes, pick a kata, and imagine each move sequentially. Don’t skip moves. Persevere until you reach the end of the kata. Initially—my friend warned—you’ll find that you get distracted from your task, that you can only complete two or three moves before your mind wanders.

No kidding.

I tried this technique months ago to overcome insomnia. I would pick a kata—for example, Ken Zaki Sho Dan—and I would close my eyes and try to picture the kata’s opening moves. I would get through the first few moves, and then I would start thinking of other things—say, whether I had brought in the stroller from the rain, or whether I was being too strict with my daughter when I made her finish her school lunch at snack time (I started imagining my children wracked by eating disorders—obviously I was being a terribly irresponsible mother).

If I was lucky, I would mentally get through the first five moves of the kata, right up until the last punch in the first series of blocks and punches. In my mind, that punch was strong. It was effective. It was like an exclamation point on the end of a sentence. The only problem was, I couldn’t get past that punch. I couldn’t imagine the turn that follows the punch.

I would try again. Again, my mind would tune out. Then, because I’m pigheaded, which occasionally has its uses, I would give it another shot.

I began to know the beginning moves of several katas extremely well. I could practically do them in my sleep. The problem was that the second half of several katas was missing. It became obvious that droves of imaginary attackers were succeeding in beating me up.

After several months, I’m getting better at my mental practice. Now, I can mentally practice a kata in its entirety. I can also picture increasingly complicated moves. For example, I can envision the double block of Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan. For a long time, I couldn’t do this.

I’ve noticed that being able to do kata mentally is correlated to my success at doing it physically. I’ve become better at effecting the double block of Ni Fan Shin Sho Dan because I’m now able to picture it. The converse is also true: if I can’t imagine a move, there is a strong likelihood that I can’t do it, either.

An interesting by-product of this practice is that I seem to have acquired a better working memory. I retain more stuff than I used to. This has improved both my ability to write (my descriptions are more accurate) and to navigate daily life (I can now retain street addresses, which means that when I’m our family’s designated navigator, I can do my job, which leads to less bickering with my husband, which, in turn, produces a calmer marital relationship—amazing, what mental karate practice can do)! I have no way of proving this correlation, of course, but I think it’s true.

So, here’s to imagining more and more complicated kata.